The rise of the cocktail culture of years past has opened people up to trying new flavors in and out of cocktails. Imported whiskey—specifically Scotch and Irish—is benefiting from that experimentation at the bar as consumers are seeking out higher-end quaffs to truly savor.
“It all goes along with the resurgence of the cocktail and spirit culture,” says Jim Romdall, manager at Vessel, an upscale cocktail lounge in Seattle. “For a long time after Prohibition, people focused on the quality of the drinks. But then there was a downtime where people didn’t appreciate it—they went toward the whiskey and Coke—and not [crafted] cocktails. Now that they are coming back to appreciate the cocktail and the balance of flavors—they are appreciating what is in the glass. Scotch and other whiskeys benefit from that.” Vessel carries 53 whiskies, priced from $7 to $30.
Consumer palates often need to be eased into these new flavors. “There is a lot of education that has been done at the bar, along with [the support of] advertising from Scotch and Irish whiskey marketers,” says Flavien Desoblin, owner of the Brandy Library in New York. “It’s a maturity of both the brain and the palate of the consumer.” With increased knowledge and the spirit of experimentation, new customers seem to be jumping on the imported whiskey bandwagon.
Irish Eyes are Shining
Irish whiskey consumption saw the greatest increase of all imported whiskey, up 21.6 percent in 2008 from a year earlier, according to Cheers’ parent company The Beverage Information Group. Many bar managers agree that the Irish whiskey category has been seeing a huge revitalization that began about three years ago.
Desoblin chalks the increase up to two things: “One—Irish whiskey producers have done a lot of effective marketing. Two—as people’s palates mature, they discover a huge reach within whiskey and are curious to know what other countries offer.”
Mimicking trends across the U.S., Bushmills and Jameson dominate the Irish whiskey consumption at Brandy Library, though some do ask for Midleton ($36) or Knappogue Castle ($15 a pour for the 1992 single malt, $34 for the 15 Year Old and $340 for the 1951 36 Year Old), he says.
At Whiskey Bar in Denver, owner Cory Schwab has noticed an economic shift toward Irish whiskey. “We have seen a movement away from some of the more aged Scotches to some of the younger, less expensive Irish brands. Brands like Tyrconnell, Powers and Jameson have become more popular, as you can get a decent, easy drinking whiskey for less than $5.”
In Chicago at seasonal American restaurant Sepia, Joshua Pearson, head bartender, says Jameson is becoming more and more popular as a shot. “Jameson in particular is fast replacing other spirits such as Jägermeister and Tequila as the shot of choice,” he says. “Interest in Irish whiskey as a cocktail base is relatively low. I would guess this could be due to the lack of cocktails featuring Irish whiskey.”
Most bar managers agree that the Irish whiskey drinker is among the younger set. “The younger crowd flocks to Irish whiskey because it’s sweeter than American whiskey, so it’s easier to drink,” says Romdall at Vessel. “Many are making the transition away from the whiskey and Coke that they drank in college. Now that they are just drinking whiskey, so they go with Irish.”
Vessel strives to serve and educate its guests about quaffs and flavors they can’t often get in other venues. The restaurant carries Redbreast Pot Still 12 Year Old for $3 for a half ounce taste and $12 a two-ounce pour, John Power & Son for $2 and $7 and Connemara for $3 and $11.
Vessel doesn’t currently have any cocktails made with Irish whiskey, but Romdall notes that consumption of Irish whiskey doesn’t generally change or increase when they do. Many operators believe this may be because many of their guests start out drinking Irish whiskey straight up as their entrée into the category and may not be ready to move to the more complex flavor profile of Irish whiskey cocktails.
The category is poised to continue growing as marketers continue efforts to appeal to the younger, newly minted whiskey connoisseurs.
With a milder taste and often times seen as having less complexity, Canadian whiskey is often a young person’s entry into the whiskey drinking realm—but it is rarely consumed neat or on the rocks. Consumption of the Canadian quaff rose 0.3-percent in 2008, according to BIG.
“Canadian drinkers are mostly people who are new to whiskey,” says Schwab. “Since they are blended, they aren’t too bold or complex. There are a few exceptions, such as Pendleton, but those are rare and harder to find.” Top Canadian whiskeys at his venue are Crown Royal for $5, Pendelton for $5 and Seagram’s at $4.
“Canadian whiskey is milder on the palate,” says Romdall, who only has Crown Royal Private Reserve ($10) on his menu. He notes, though, that consumption has actually gone down as people are experimenting with the bolder flavors of other whiskeys.
Many bar managers are noting a similar trend where Canadian whiskey is losing ground to the other whiskey options that are more often served neat or on the rocks. But they are still ordered as a mixed drink.
“Canadians have stayed strong in the mixed drink category,” explains Schwab. For example, he gets a lot of Canadian whiskey called in drinks like Crown and Ginger for $5 or Seagram 7 and 7-Up at $4.50. Romdall, Desoblin and Pearson also all note that Canadian whiskey and soda is a standard order at their venues. Pearson also thinks Canadian whiskey has room to grow with increased marketing from the producers. “Canadian Whiskey could be marketed similarly to what they do with American versions, highlighting small batch and limited production releases,” he says.
With a consumer willing to experiment and looking for the story behind the drink, Canadian has plenty of room for expansion.
Scotch is King
Among the imports, bar managers agree that Scotch remains the most highly called for spirit in the category with single malts stealing the show although their experience may not accurately reflect the bigger picture. BIG data shows that Scotch consumption has actually declined by one percent in 2008 from 2007.
“Scotch is by far the best seller among imports, and we are selling more single malts,” notes Romdall, adding that Vessel serves all aged spirits with an ice sphere that is made from individual molds. “People want to get into Scotch—they like it. … They feel like they are missing out if they are not a part of it.”
Pearson concurs, “Scotch whiskey is increasing leaps and bounds, particularly in the single malts and small production whiskeys. The demographic driving this trend is males under 35 who are becoming more educated in their purchasing and drink decisions. They have a willingness to try new products and are constantly searching for interesting Scotches.” Top single malts at Sepia include Macallan 12 Year Old ($14) and 18 Year Old ($22), Laphroaig ($14) and Lagavulin ($18).
The single malt trend can be chalked up to the perceived quality of something that is made in limited quantity, say some experts. In Los Angeles, Nick Liberato, head mixologist at David Myers’ restaurants CommeÇa, Sona and Pizzeria Ortica, says that 75 percent of the Scotches ordered are single malts. “People feel it’s purer and has the richest flavor.”
Liberato continues, “People are looking for a more sophisticated drink that they can savor. They are really tasting it for what it is and appreciating the flavor like they would a nice glass of wine.”
Scotch provides many unique flavors for experimentation. “The flavor, color and taste profile can vary greatly from one Scotch to the next—there is almost an endless variety,” notes Schwab. “There are a lot of Scotches coming out aged in different barrels, like Port or Madeira, that almost give the whiskey a sweeter flavor.” Some popular Scotches at Whiskey Bar are Glenmorangie Port Wood ($8), Macallan 12 Year Old ($8) and Glenlivet 12 ($6).
Outward appearances matter to the Scotch drinker. “There is a little whiskey snobbery in ordering a single malt,” notes Desoblin, adding that more affordable single malts entering the market have helped. “It doesn’t have to cost more to get a great single malt. There are some at prices comparable to the blends.” For example, he notes that the Dalmore 12 Year Old is priced at $12.
There doesn’t seem to be a specific face you can put on the Scotch drinker. “The demographic is all over the place,” says Romdall. “I see a lot of young people who want to know about Scotch come in asking questions and many women.”
“The Scotch trend has hit everyone,” Desoblin agrees. “There is the 55- to 60-year old man who had moved to Cognac will now ask for cask strength single malts. It’s the 25-year old finance guy whose social life is dictating that he drinks Scotch. And women lawyers and those in finance are taking a liking to peated Scotches.”
From complex cocktails to the sweeter Irish whiskeys and mild Canadian whiskey to smoky, peated Scotches, imported whiskeys offer a huge range of flavor for the connoisseur. “There is a whiskey out there for everyone,” says Schwab, “you just have to know where to look to find it.” Overall operators seem quite positive that the general category, and particularly Irish and Scotch, is poised for growth.
“There is a large interest in American whisky, which is still No. 1,” notes Romdall. “Artisan Bourbons, though is a small world. They love it, but they quickly tried them all. The world of Scotch is much larger and people begin getting know Bourbon, then realize more of the bigger world of whiskeys. Because American is small, growth will continue in Scotch.”
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